Suzanne’s two week recap of life in Kinshasa, DR Conco.
Kinshasa, a city of 7 – 12 million (no one knows if and where the other 4 million are) has a wide range of poverty and wealth. There are many, many people on foot everywhere at all hours. They get from place to place on “transports” which are vans in various stages of repair with seating from 8 – 16 but we generally see 12 – 35 people jammed in, hanging out the doors. In addition, honking cars will routinely run down the right-side lane of a street – whether or not there is a lane and pick up people that are going in their direction and get paid to do so. It probably helps with their fuel costs. You also see very nice cars that love to zoom in the left lane as fast as possible – especially on the Boulevard - an eight lane road that runs from the river North to South – it is one of the few nicely paved road. Since there are no traffic lights and streets with 2, 4, 6 and eight lanes the pedestrian walks out into traffic and waits for an opening, and takes it one car-dodge at a time – these are often people with huge loads on their heads and all day long as you drive, and watch and waits for pedestrians there are street vendors, and I do mean on the street between lanes selling cold water, fresh bread, bananas, etc.
Driving is definitely not for the hesitant or faint hearted. They pass on the left with cars coming on or on the right and run up on the pedestrian area. One of the roads we take to our office is really only about three lanes wide – but they manage to get four abreast and that is not always evenly divided, sometimes three cars going one way and then two come at them and they move into two lanes – not always happily – horns go crazy. Turning left or crossing at intersections is really scary. You just dodge each other until you make your way. You are always happy where there are several of you trying to get to the same turn or cross because you form a blockade – and move – widening to about four abreast – as soon as one car is able to get a fender in the path of the oncoming traffic and they are forced to slow down everyone makes a run for it. It is a huge game of chicken. Dick is really getting good at it. We are so amazed that there are not more accidents. The Bishop on his way to get us from the airport had been hit twice on route, but little car damage and everyone just keeps going. There are very few street signs and you drive by signposts – a store, a church, or some outstanding building.
There is one other piece to the driving excitement - the push-cart. They are about 4 feet by 3 feet – maybe more – a curved bar/handle at both ends. They haul stuff for hire. If they own the cart they make all the money for whatever they haul or salvage. If they rent the cart they must pay $7.00 (U.S.), (7,000 francs) and then get to keep the rest of the value of whatever they recover. Here’s the rub – they are crossing the streets and intersections also. Sometimes it is just one person, one cart, but occasionally there are 3-5 people – one in front edging across the traffic making a precarious path, the rest are pushing the four foot cart loaded 6 feet tall (I do not exaggerate – it is taller than the men pushing it and longer than a car length – so they have to stop two lanes of traffic to make it across. Again, the dichotomy of wealth and bare existence. The big cars honk impatiently while the poor man risks life and limb for salvage money to get hopefully one meal a day.
We went to the grocery store – street was crazy – we were surrounded on all sides with “vendors” – they have everything from hangers to booze. From now on we will go early in the morning on Saturdays – fewer people are out. You pay someone to watch your car and they also help guide your parking and backing back out onto the road – again very risky. Shopping was quite a shock. A small container of detergent was $12.00. I needed an ironing board but a flimsy one was $79.00. Happily there is an old iron in the apartment. In general everything is 3 – 7 times as expensive. The labels are all in French, German, and other symbols that look Middle Eastern. Milk comes in boxes (tastes like it too) from the aisle as does fruit juices (which are real fruit and are really good). So far we are doing great and eating just fine. We miss a few things – cereal is $18.00 a box and a half pound of butter is $6.00 – making baking cookies quite expensive. We have not gone too far and frequent a grocery store that is close to the apartment. There are no Ace hardware stores here so there is a plumbing isle (we needed it to repair the shower) an electrical aisle – light bulb – funny looking long pencil like thing - $6.00.
Really, considering everything must be brought in over great distances pricing is not out of the question. The Congo River has huge falls so that precludes goods being shipped from the south. So the price of all goods probably includes airfare. There is not much manufacturing here.
Local food is not real safe either – we can’t eat any of the good smelling food along the roadside. (think Tijuana). We wash all food in bleach water before eating it. We are developing workable habits. We stop at the vegetable stand on the way home, put bleach water in the sink and wash everything before it goes in the refrigerator or the table. Grocery shopping the same, we rinse the chicken, etc. in bleach water and rinse off all cans and packages.
We live in a very nice area, considered “the city” where the government offices and embassies are found. We also have a very nice office in the new Seminary and Institute building.
The electricity is unpredictable, just like the streets changing from two-way to one way. In fact most things are random and unpredictable. But it is all fun. With 90 plus degree weather the days get uncomfortable – but manageable. The generator kicks in but we can’t run the air conditioning at the office on the generator. They must have a really good system at our apartment and we rarely have a brown out. It might also be that since we are near important office buildings they don’t have as many “power outages.” Since they burn their garbage we are very glad when it rains. I think I will miss the rain when the dry season starts – apparently you just don’t see the sun because of the haze/smog.
We know the poorer locals and the missionaries cook with charcoal outside their “homes” which are typical concrete block one room affairs in the city (no electricity), or typical hut type accommodations in the country.
The water is not drinkable. We shower with our eyes and mouth closed. In our apartment we have a filtration system that provides clean water in the kitchen. We fill water bottles to take out with us.
The Welfare Missionaries are making a trip to Laputa where the water project is. It is the largest in the world. I think it serves over 250,000 people and since people are moving there to take advantage of the fresh water, they are looking for more mountain springs to add more pumping stations, pipe and water stations. A Welfare Specialist is coming from US. They are bringing enough MRE's to eat on the trip ;-).
We finally walked the Congo River trail this week. It is really beautiful. Many of the homes beside the river are those of the foreign ambassadors and includes the home of the country president. His compound is well guarded, so we stay clear. Beautiful trees, flowers, birds, etc. You can hear the falls in the distance. We never see dogs and cats. No pets. We think they would get eaten. There are a few, on leashes on the walk along embassy row on the Congo.
All schools are private and anyone wanting an education for their children must pay. That is really sad. It adds to the poverty cycle. There is a huge Catholic School next door to us. We can see the boys lining up in the school yard all with white shirts on. We can faintly hear the school principal/director giving morning instructions – and maybe a devotional after they are in formation. They run shifts, one group in the morning, generally another in the afternoon. They have programs and soccer games in the evening.
The fabrics are beautiful here – women have wonderfully designed dresses and head coverings. Dick is hoping I don’t find a source for the fabric. You can get an entire outfit sewn for very little money. We have been visiting trade schools and colleges. I noticed that the younger generation, if they can afford it, has western clothing. That is kind of a shame.
To answer a few questions: Yes, there is plumbing in our apartment, at our churches, and where we have our offices in the Seminary and Institute Building. We make sure we don’t have to use other bathrooms when we are out because we are not sure if there are any and how they are “equipped.” No sidewalks that we have seen.
Last week we ventured out into a new part of the city for an appointment, and had a little run in with street punks. They wanted to get in the car and steal. They are not dangerous in a physical harm way ( Dick could have taken them all – so he says), but we are missionaries. We had a young Congolese return missionary with us. They actually got Dick’s suit coat out of the back seat. (our current car unlocks all doors automatically when you turn the door key). The young returned missionary told us to get in the car and lock the doors, he would take care of it. He came back in a minute with the jacket. While Dick was getting in the car, one of them grab at his wallet. he slapped his hand away. That is when the Congolese return missionary said, "Elder Stagg, please get in the car now and lock the door, I will handle this." And, he did. Actually the wallet is a "throw away" wallet with only about four dollars in it and my membership cards for Albertson's, Safeway, and Fred Meyer (they look a lot like credit cards and the punks don't know the difference). They are called “sheygay’s” (sp?) and roam the streets in gangs – we are more careful now.
We were also arrested on Thursday of this week. Dick was driving with Russell from the church employment office. We were out looking at schools. There was a hole in the road at least 18 inches deep. Dick went around it and we were stopped by six officers because Dick did not signal left (around the hole). Russell put the window down to talk to them and one of the officers reached through and opened the back door. Two of them climbed in the back seat with me and would not get out. Russell talked at some length with them (quite loud at times) and would not pay a bribe, on principle, so we drove with them hanging on and in the car to the police “station” – a small stationary trailer with a table cloth across the door and a wobbly wooden floor - along a side street . There was a heated conversation between Russell and the six men – he told them that it was not right to treat people that way – getting in the car, harassing, looking for whatever and if we broke the law, fine we would pay the fine. The police person in the trailer sent the men away after they described our crimes. He wrote up the ticket, wanted $60.00 and Russell got them down to $20.00 - so much for principle. I didn’t feel threatened, just hot and tired by the time we were able to leave.
Russell is a really good example of people trying to do the right thing. When he returned from his mission he could have gone to another country, but determined to stay in the Congo and get an education. He has five years of education – a masters degree – was a news person on a private television station then moved to consulting in the field. Now he works for the church in the employment center helping people get better jobs. He will look at all the PEF applications to make sure the applicants are going for job training in fields that will give them employment in the Congo. For example, not firefighters – most buildings are concrete and we have never seen a fire truck.
I I am very impressed by the leadership in the various wards and stakes. The talks in Sacrament were excellent, and the stake presidents really seemed to be powerful and well respected. The church employment office is running well so I think we will have a great committee. The people here are so very nice. They have wonderful smiles and are so very helpful. The mission had 275 baptisms last month. That’s more than a branch a month; and the retention rate is 95%. Russell is also a Bishop and he said that in his ward they have a goal that each family, within a six month time frame will reach out to two other families.
I am playing for the Primary (children’s) meeting. They sing really well. In fact everyone has good voices. It is great. I have four piano students now. There is a private fund (generous church member) that gives keyboards to people who will learn to play. It is really nice. We are having fun – one student does not speak English so Dick translates. He is learning music too.
On the progress side, we have met with Eco Bank, this is where the kids set up their bank accounts, and fixed a problem there. (French is a real advantage). Then we met with the Employment Resource Center director (a really sharp guy - Congolese) and worked on issue with him. We are anxious to get started. There is a tremendous need here for job training. Simple things like knowing how to speak English can get a person a better job. If they could manage $250.00 they could go to driving school and really make a better living. The Hatches, missionaries from New Mexico who serve as the Mission Home office managers are teaching English on Wednesday afternoons – we go and help. The room is usually filled with about 80 people. Last week, Dick taught the beginners because he could speak French. It was fun. We played a game that the French teacher had played with me to learn the numbers. The class members were really sharp. They are all so nice – only 4-5 people were members of the church.
We looked at two computer schools today. One of them is associated with Cisco Systems. The students could finish the program in one year and have an international certificate. That’s the type of education we hope to fund – so that they are job trained in a minimum amount of time in a skill that has value in the vicinity.
Friday: We looked at two more schools today – they were further away and we found 4 million more people! Amazing small streets with businesses on both sides – picture little cinder block buildings 6 by 10 at the most. Each little business selling some product or another – from funeral wreaths (plastic I think – durable!) to phone charger time for money.
The one school was huge, 5,000 students went through there last year. They have everything from electrical wiring, repairing refrigeration, plumbing to huge (very old looking) lathes and a metal benders.
We will probably send students there, it looked well organized and they receive “certification.” These schools are not modern looking – one was in an old uncompleted 5 story building with the scaffolding still up from years ago. The “beauty” school had front wall or doors and was made of unfinished concrete – looked more like a loading dock.
You have to admire the people and their ingenuity. They are making a living anyway they can, and these schools will help at least get them out of the poverty cycle. Once they have the means to subsist, we can finance even better training if they are willing.